10 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Credit Score

We all have things in our lives we are trying to improve– whether that be our health, a hobby or skill, or home improvement.

But are you focusing on improving your credit score?

Did you know that only 10% of Americans know their credit score?

Those are the findings of a survey commissioned by TrueCredit.com, a web subsidiary of the credit bureau, TransUnion. “It is shocking how little Americans know about their credit,” said John Danaher, president of TrueCredit.com. “Good credit is a cornerstone of your financial profile, enabling you to finance major purchases, such as a home, education, or car.” Then he added, “Not knowing about your credit can expose you to higher interest rates which translates into less money in your pocket at the end of the day.” When you apply for credit, your credit scores help lenders determine whether or not you are able to repay the loan based on your past financial performance. With a higher score, you qualify for better interest rates, higher credit limits, and more types of credit than you would with a lower score. Your score reflects the way you use credit, and there are no tricks or quick fixes to getting a good score. However, you can raise your score over time by demonstrating that you consistently manage your credit responsibly.

Here are 10 things you can do to improve your credit score.

1. Pay your bills on time. If you have a history of paying your bills on time, you’ll have an easier time getting a mortgage loan, car loan or credit cards. Even if you’ve had serious delinquencies in the past, a recent history (24 months) of on-time payments carries weight in credit decisions.

2. Keep credit card balances low. High outstanding debt can pull your score down.

3. Check your credit report for accuracy. Inaccurate information on your credit report can be cleared up easily. Always contact the original creditor and the credit bureaus whenever you clear up an error so that the inaccurate information won’t reappear later.

4. Pay down debt. Consolidating your credit card debt or spreading it over multiple cards will not improve your score in the long run. The most effective way to improve your credit is by slowly paying down the amount you owe.

5. Use credit cards – but manage them responsibly. In general, having credit cards and installment loans that you pay on time will raise your score. Someone who has no credit card tends to have a lower score than someone who has already proven that he can manage credit cards responsibly.

6. Don’t open multiple accounts too quickly, especially if you have a short credit history. This can look risky because you are taking on a lot of possible debt. New accounts will also lower the average age of your existing accounts which is something your credit score also considers.

7. Don’t close an account to remove it from your record. A closed account will still show up on your credit report. In fact, closing accounts can sometimes hurt your score unless you also pay down your debt at the same time.

8. Shop for a loan within a focused period of time. Credit scores distinguish between a search for a single loan and a search for many new credit lines, based in part on the length of time over which recent requests for credit occurred.

9. Don’t open new credit card accounts you don’t need. This approach could backfire and actually lower your score.

10. Contact your creditors or see a legitimate credit counselor if you’re having financial difficulties. This won’t raise your score immediately, but the sooner you begin managing your credit well and making timely payments, the sooner your score will improve.

These ideas won’t create a dramatic improvement in your credit score overnight, but over time, they will. Remember, it takes time to develop a strong profile. Once you’ve done it, you’ll find it easier to apply for credit and favorable interest rates.

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11 Ways to Scale Back on Food Costs

Here are 11 easy tips to help you save on food costs:

  1. Never shop before making a detailed menu for the week.
  2. Use coupons whenever possible.
  3. Cook with seasonal produce.
  4. Use the generic brands for cleansers, shampoos and detergents instead of brand-name products.
  5. Never buy something just because it’s on sale unless you use that item regularly. You aren’t saving if you got a great deal on something that will just sit in your pantry.
  6. Whenever possible, make your own instead of buying convenience foods.
  7. Never shop for groceries without a list.
  8. Buy in bulk instead of making smaller, more frequent trips to the store.
  9. Consider having your groceries delivered instead of going to the store to avoid impulse purchases.
  10. Never shop before taking full inventory of your fridge, freezer and pantry.
  11. When possible, buy larger containers of food instead of individualized portions. This includes snack bags, yogurts, ice cream, cheeses and drinks.

How do you save on food? Share your best tips with us in the comments!

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Energy Saving Tips – What to Look For When Buying New Appliances

There’s no getting away from the fact that our dependence on energy increases daily. With energy-dependent technology driving our lives, ecologists continue to search for ways to save our environment. Focusing on energy-efficient appliances is one way to do that.

Your monthly electric bill may not itemize the specific usage of each appliance in your home. If you are interested in a breakdown, though, you can ask your local electric company for a listing. But about 30% of the charges on your statement stem from your electrical appliances. That’s why the government, as well as the majority of appliance manufacturers, encourage consumers to replace standard devices with new energy-saving ones.

So, if your dishes aren’t coming out clean after a run in the dishwasher, or if the ring around your shirt collar has not disappeared after a hot laundry wash, you may be in the market for a new appliance.

There could be some good years left in that 10-year-old refrigerator or oven. But, generally speaking, prices for electrical appliances have come down across the board over the years. And once you consider the cost of a new part for your old apparatus, plus the charge for the visit, it just might be worthwhile to chuck the old and buy new.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the new energy-efficient appliances save you money on a monthly basis because they use far less electricity. They also help the environment by cutting down on greenhouse gases emitted into the air.

What is Energy-Efficient?

So what does it really mean if an appliance is energy-efficient? In simple terms, it means the process used to make the appliance function – spin, clean, cool, heat, etc. is using less energy. This can be achieved in a number of ways, and manufacturers are always adapting new techniques, such as using renewable sources of energy like water or sunlight.  

Now that you have decided that a modern and energy-efficient refrigerator is what you need, how can you be sure you’re choosing the best product at the most reasonable price?

Here are some tips to guide you in your search:

  1. Determine the total cost. Since the purpose of your new purchase is to save on monthly energy costs, the first thing to consider is the operating costs.  That, along with the actual purchase price, should give you the real cost of the appliance.
  1. Look for the energy rating. There are several reliable rating services that provide information about appliance energy consumption. The federal government uses the yellow and black Energy Star Standard sticker to inform consumers about operating costs and annual energy consumption. This helps buyers compare one clothes dryer to another. Energy Star tests each item independently.
  1. Select the right size appliance. Running a large machine – even the most energy-efficient one – uses more electricity than a compact one, so don’t buy something bigger than what you need.
  1. Look for economy choices. Many dishwashers and washing machines offer a variety of different cycles. If you find one with an economy cycle, that will save you money when you need to wash only a small load of clothes or dishes.
  1. Stay Simple. When it comes to choosing a refrigerator, go easy on the add-ons. According to one independent rating service, a water dispenser or ice maker uses a lot of extra electricity. Also, top-to-bottom fridge/freezer models are more energy-efficient than side by sides. The auto-defrost feature uses heat to speed up defrosting and makes running the refrigerator less efficient.

This holds true for self-cleaning ovens as well, so consider the value in this upgrade.

  1. Contact your utility supplier for the latest ways to save on utility charges. With today’s smart devices, appliances can be programed to use less energy at certain times of the day.
  1. Check out your home. If you have the time and the extra cash, it may be worthwhile to call in a home assessor to help identify ways you can save on your overall energy and water costs.  He or she may be able to tell you how to use your appliances at the most energy-efficient times of day.
  1. Comparison shop. Never buy the first model you see. Household appliances are not cheap, and to find the most energy efficient one at the best price, shop around. Well-known name brands are always more expensive than lesser-known companies. However, they don’t always offer a better product. If you check carefully, you may find that heating element in the name-brand laundry dryer is exactly the same as the one in a model selling for hundreds of dollars less. Compare the details. You might be surprised.

SOURCES:

http://matteroftrust.org/13895/energy-efficient-appliances-and-their-benefits

https://energy.gov/energysaver/shopping-appliances

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6 Common Tax Mistakes To Avoid

It’s that time of year again! Get ready to break out the calculator and pencils; dig out the enormous pile of receipts, tax forms, and pay stubs, and get to work. Whether you choose to go it alone, use a tax-prep computer program or hand it all over to an accountant, start with checking out our handy list of common mistakes people make on their tax returns.

1.) Faulty math

One of the most common errors on filed taxes is math mistakes. A small miscalculation can throw off all your numbers and get you into trouble with the IRS. However you choose to prepare your taxes, be sure to triple-check the math before filing.

2.) Name changes and misspellings

When preparing your taxes, you’re thinking about numbers, but don’t forget to pay attention to everything else on your form! If you use a name that’s different than the one the IRS has on file for your Social Security number, or even if you spell it wrong, that can mean trouble for you and your taxes. If you’ve recently changed your legal name, be sure to let the Social Security Administration know.

3.) Omitting extra income

Many people neglect to include secondary sources of income on their tax forms. This may include freelance work and any other side work they may have done throughout the year. If you’ve taken any side jobs in 2017, fill out a 1099-MISC and file it along with your taxes.

4.) Deducting funds donated to charity

Charity laws are complicated! First, only donations given to an organization with a tax-exempt status can be deducted from your taxes. Second, if you’ve donated food items or used clothing, they had to have been in decent shape to be eligible for a write-off. Finally, calculate the value of your non-monetary donations according to what they would be worth if you’d sell them now. Don’t forget to include those charity tax receipts when you file!

5.) Using the most recent tax laws

The current administration has made some major changes to the tax code. While most of these changes won’t take effect until you file your first taxes for 2018, there are some changes that are effective for this year, including the following:

  • The standard deduction increased to $6,350 for single, $9,350 for head of household, and $12,700 for married filing jointly.
  • The maximum earned income tax credit increased to $6,318.
  • The maximum income limit for the EITC increased to $53,930.
  • The foreign earned income deduction increased to $102,100.
  • Annual deductible amounts for Health Savings Accounts increased for individuals only, to $3,400.

6.) Signing your forms

If you’re filing through the USPS, be sure to put your signature wherever necessary, and get a mailing receipt. If filing online, you can use a PIN instead. Most places that require a signature will need to be dated as well.

Check your forms for errors before submitting and file with confidence!

SOURCES:

https://criticalfinancial.com/5-common-tax-mistakes-people-make/

https://gobankingrates.com/taxes/know-before-file-tax-breaks/amp/

https://blog.taxact.com/common-tax-mistakes/amp/

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Plan The Ultimate Family Vacation – Together!

Planning the ultimate family vacation is quite a challenge. This is especially true when you’re trying to fit in the best attractions and give your kids the vacation of a lifetime while staying within a budget.

How can you accomplish all that and still keep your kids happy?

The solution is simple, yet brilliant: Let your kids be a part of planning that vacation! This way, they’ll be the making many of the choices, thus eliminating the usual complaints and groans about your chosen attractions. Plus, your job will be that much easier. As an added bonus, your kids will learn invaluable lessons about budgeting and making choices.

Several weeks before your planned vacation, hold a family meeting. Then, let your kids know what your destination is before enlisting their help in planning the itinerary. Make sure they know what your exact budget is and fill them in on all the best attractions in the area.

Tell them they are going to have to make some very hard choices. They need to decide exactly what they want to do with the vacation budget.

Do they want to try out the famously fantastic Thai restaurant near the hotel and then spend a day at the beach? Or, would they rather pick up a budget meal and take in the huge amusement park in the area? Do they want to go horseback riding and skip the ATVing? Or, would they rather give both activities a miss and spend the money on water-skiing? Let them know that each option is going to make a dent in the budget, so they need to choose wisely!

To make it even more tangible for your kids, withdraw cash for the entire amount you plan to spend on your vacation and place it on the table. Then, when a choice is made, physically subtract the amount it would cost you from the stash of cash. This will allow your kids to actually see how much each attraction will “cost” them and force them to make better choices.

When your meeting is through, you will have your itinerary planned and your kids will have gained an invaluable life lesson in budgeting and decision-making.

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Financial Preparation for 2018

2018 is upon us – are you ready?

Usher in the new year with plans for financial improvement and resolutions to do more.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Tune your budget
It’s great to start off the new year with a plan. A budget is just that-a plan that starts with the income you expect and your fixed expenses such as your mortgage, insurance and utilities. The plan incorporates your savings goals, and the remaining money is designated for your other expenses. A realistic budget will help you set your financial goals and will remind you to stick to them. Now is the perfect time to assess last year’s budget or create a new one if you don’t yet have one in place.
Reviewing how you spent last year’s money will help you make better financial decisions for the year ahead. While thinking about it, include a method for tracking your spending. You can do this on a spreadsheet or tag items in your checking account.
Even with a solid plan, there can be surprises along the way, so be sure to build an emergency fund into your budget.
Plan ahead to meet your goals
Consider how you will accomplish your goals. You might have shorter-term goals, such as purchasing a new home, as well as longer-term goals, like retirement. Each set of goals requires different kinds of planning and saving.
Financial planners recommend setting up a separate savings account for each goal. This way, your progress toward that goal is clear.
It’s best to work backward for determining how much you need to save for each goal. Determine the cost of your goal and then establish a reasonable time-frame as well as how much you’ll need to save each month to reach it.
Spend mindfully
Make your financial future more secure this year by identifying your wants and needs. Your needs are necessary for survival and include food and shelter. Your wants are simply things you desire-like a luxury car. Tend to your needs first. Then, if there is money remaining, consider your wants.
This might sound obvious, but for many of us, the lines between wants and needs are blurred.
Maximize tax contributions
Tax deductions can be a valuable source of savings. If you have employer-matching funds available, take advantage of them. Also, verify with your HR contact and your accountant that you are contributing the optimal amount to your 401K and IRA.
Check your flexible savings account (FSA)
If you have unspent money in your FSA, now is the time to use it. Your pre-tax dollars in such accounts typically need to be spent before the end of the year or they are lost.
These are just a few of the many ways you can prepare financially for the coming year. With a little attention to some often-overlooked details, a little perseverance and a little mindfulness throughout, you’ll be moving forward with a strong foundation and positive outlook.
SOURCES:
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4 Ways to Save During the Post Holiday Season

This year’s holidays may soon be, or already are, a memory, but the Santa shock is just beginning. Avoid it completely by thinking about paying for next year’s holidays now.

  1. Buy wrapping paper and decorations now! You’ll find bargain prices for all wrapping supplies and holiday ornaments and they won’t go bad over the year. Save a bundle by stocking up now.
  2. Shop for next year’s presents in January. These will also be steeply discounted and you can save oodles of money by buying things that never go out of style
  3. Save all the gift cards you get throughout the year for the holiday season.
  4. Keep your eyes open for gifts all year long. Whenever you spot a great find or an amazing bargain, grab it. You’ll save by buying what’s on sale and spreading out your gift shopping, instead of doing it all in a month or two.

How do you plan ahead all year for a holiday season that leaves no financial stress in its wake? Share your best tips with us in the comments!

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Give Your Kids The Gift Of Giving

The holiday season brings a flurry of frenzied consumerism, unabashed greed and endless shopping. As a parent, though, you want your kids to associate this time of year with giving and not just with taking. How can you give your kids a joyous holiday season and teach them about kindness at the same time?

The best way to do this is by actively encouraging your children to think of others. Try these activities to help bring the spirit of giving into your home this year:

1.) One in = one out

Is your toy chest overflowing? Do your kids have more games than they need? Institute a rule this holiday season: When you’ve gotten a new toy, choose one to give away. Set up a large box in the corner of your playroom and have your children place one toy in the giveaway box for every new one they receive. They can choose older toys they’ve lost interest in or those they’ve outgrown. When the box is full, take a family trip to the local toy drive or to a needy family in the neighborhood. Watch your kids’ faces light up as they make others happy with their thoughtful donations.

2.) Season’s greetings

Designate one evening this season for writing holiday cards. No, not to your family and friends – these cards are for children who’ve been stricken with illness. Set up a table with lots of cardstock and all your kids’ favorite crafts supplies. Speak to your family about sick children who might be sad this Christmas and could use a simple homemade greeting card to cheer them up. Have fun creating your masterpieces and inscribing them with positive, encouraging messages. Then, get your gang into the car and drive over to the local hospital to deliver them personally!

3.) Grocery giveaway

Many grocery stores hold food drives during the holiday season. Help support a local cause and teach your children about giving to others at the same time. Take your child along with you on your next trip to the grocery and have them choose one food item to purchase for the food drive. If you usually let your child pick a treat at the grocery, ask them if they’d like to forego it this time and instead buy something for the needy. Make sure your child is the one to actually place the chosen food item into the collection bin so they can personally experience the joy of giving.

4.) Senior moments

Does your child love performing? If you’ve got a young star at home, this is the perfect way to teach them to use their talents to make others happy. Have your child invite several friends over one afternoon and ask them to prepare a small dance or a short comedy routine. Let them dig through your costume collection to outfit themselves for their grand debut and practice their gig  until it’s perfect. Then, delivery them to the local nursing home for spreading the cheer among the residents. They’ll relish the stardom and the residents will adore the little performance. That’s a win-win all around!

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Best Gifts From College Students On A Budget

The holidays are a stressful time of year if you’re in college. You’ve got to pack your whole life into a suitcase for a month while passing the hardest tests you’ve taken in your life. It’s tough to remember gift shopping.

There are lots of ways you can take part in family gift giving. Try these low-cost gift ideas to make your parents, friends and family smile! Let’s spread some goodwill!

1.) Do the legwork or research on a joint gift

If you have older siblings or other potential allies, you may be able to work out a joint gift for your parents. They could provide the funding while you do the research and legwork. For example, your mom has wanted new cookware. Do the research on the best brand and shop around to get it at the best price. You do the wrapping, and sign both your names to the card. This isn’t just for mom and dad – consider working with your parents to get gifts for younger siblings. You make a contribution of time and effort to the gift giving process and have a chance to show you care. As a college student, you’re learning all kinds of research skills; put them to the test and find the right gift at the right price!

2.) Find nifty, locally produced stuff in your college town

College towns are full of cottage industries. Somewhere in town, a tiny shop has soaps, jams, posters, and other local goods. These are the best kinds of gifts because they’re easy to transport, are consumable, and there’s nothing to dust. You can fill your bag with soaps, candles, and other little gifts to give to friends back home and extended family. It helps them connect to where you are and might give them a reason to come visit!

3.) DIY dorm room projects

Finding projects you can tackle in a space that’s the size of a cubicle can be a challenge. Cruising DIY hubs like Buzzfeed and Pinterest can produce hundreds of neat ideas. You can make hand-decorated mugs, framed pictures or braided necklaces. There are tons of projects that don’t demand much in either space or supplies. All it costs you is a little bit of money, a free Saturday and a whole lot of love. You can make sentimental, hand-crafted presents for everyone in your life.

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Surviving the Holidays Stress Free

With crowded stores and an ever-growing list of people to shop for, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and to overspend on your holiday shopping. No worries, though; UCCU’s got you covered! Read on for pre-and post-holiday tips and have yourself a jolly December without breaking the bank.

Pre-Holidays Tips

1. Revise your gift list

Chances are, lots of the people you exchange gifts with would be relieved to be taken off your list. Talk to coworkers and acquaintances about just exchanging cards this year, or make a deal to only exchange homemade or inexpensive gifts.

This way, you can focus on buying special gifts for those closest to you instead of generic gifts for everyone you’ve ever met.

2. Organize a Yankee Swap or Secret Santa

Still got a mile-long list? Try one of these creative solutions! A Yankee Swap or a Secret Santa activity saves money and stress while adding a bit of intrigue to any party. Everyone involved only needs to bring a single gift – and it’s always fun.

Set a reasonable price cap on gifts so no one walks out with a candy cane while the person next to them hauls off a flat-screen TV.

3. Bake holiday treats

Reduce the financial weight of the season by whipping up your own holiday treats instead of buying gifts.

It’s hard to find the perfect gift, but no one turns down a tin of homemade holiday cookies!

4. Make a budget and stick to it

We all plan to stick to a budget this holiday season – make this the year it really happens.

Set an absolute limit to how much you will spend on the holidays.  This will encourage you to plan your spending rather than grabbing impulse items as you shop.

5. Make use of holiday deals….but don’t get distracted

When prices drop, we sometimes go wild, snatching up random items because we don’t want to miss out on those “crazy, low holiday prices.”

Make use of these deals by buying items on your list at a discounted price – but don’t buy things you don’t need.

6. Rethink giving

Instead of running to the mall again, think of other ways you can give that will make the world a better place and truly brighten someone’s holiday.

It’s the perfect time of year to volunteer at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters and charity organizations.

2 Post-Holiday Tips

1. Use those gift cards

Gift cards are a typical holiday gift, but they’re often forgotten and unused.

Put your gift cards in your wallet and spend them creatively.  If you’re not a fan of on-the-go coffee, use your Starbucks gift card to pick up ground coffee beans to use at home.  Rent a movie with your iTunes card.  Whatever it might be, just use those gift cards!

2. Regift

You’ll probably wind up with a bunch of gifts you don’t want.  Hold onto them; many gifts can be  re-gifted next year or used as birthday gifts throughout the year.

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